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Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing – TechCrunch

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The Galaxy S21 is a tank. It’s a big, heavy (8.04 ounces versus its predecessor’s 7.7), blunt instrument of a phone. It’s quintessential Samsung, really — the handset you purchase when too much isn’t quite enough. In fact, it even goes so far as adopting S-Pen functionality — perhaps the largest distinguishing factor between the company’s two flagship lines.

In many ways it — and the rest of the S21 models — are logical extensions of the product line. Samsung hasn’t broken the mold here. But the company didn’t particularly need to. The line remains one of the best Android devices you can buy. It’s a product experience the company is content to refine, while saving more fundamental changes for the decidedly more experimental Galaxy Z line.

Samsung certainly deserves credit for going all in on 5G early. The company was ahead of the curve in adopting next-gen wireless and was among the first to add it across its flagship offerings. 5G became a utilitarian feature remarkably fast — owing in no small part to Qualcomm’s major push to add the tech to its mid-tier chips. In fact, the iPhone 12 may well be the last major flagship that can get away with using the addition of the tech as a major selling point.

With that out of the way, smartphone makers are returning to familiar terrain on which to wage their wars — namely imaging. S-Pen functionality for the Ultra aside, most of the top-level upgrades of this generation come on the camera side of things. No surprise there, of course. The camera has always a focus for Samsung — though the changes largely revolved around software, which is increasingly the trend for many manufacturers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are, however, some hardware changes worth noting. Namely, the new S models represent one of the bigger aesthetic updates in recent memory. I’d mentioned being kind of on the fence about them in my original write up of the news, owing largely to that weird wrinkle of 2020/2021 gadget blogging: not being able to see the device in person. Now that I’ve been toting the product around the streets of New York for several days, I can say definitive that, well, I’m mostly kind of okay with them, I guess.

The big sticking point is that massive contour cut camera housing. Pretty sure I used the word “brutalist” to describe it last time. Having used the product, I’d say it’s fairly apt. There’s something…industrial about the design choice. And it’s really pronounced on the Ultra, which sports four camera holes, plus a laser autofocus sensor and flash. It’s a big, pronounced camera bump built from surprisingly thick metal. I suspect it’s owed, in part, to the “folded” telephoto lens.

Samsung sent along the Phantom Black model. The color was something the company devoted a surprising amount of stage time to during the announcement. It was the kind of attention we rarely see devoted to something as inconsequential as a color finish, outside of some Apple bits. Here’s a long video about it if you’re curious. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nice. It’s matte black. I do dig the new metallic back; even with Corning on your side, a glass back really feels like an accident waiting to happen.

The curved screen looks nice, per usual, accented well by the round corners. The screen itself is striking — Samsung’s displays always are. The screens on the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra are 6.2, 6.7 and 6.8 inches, respectively. Those are all unchanged, save for the Ultra, which is, strangely, 0.1 inches smaller than its predecessor. It’s not really noticeable, but is an odd choice from a company that has long insisted that bigger is better when it comes to displays.

Eye Comfort Shield is a welcome addition, adjusting the screen temperature based on time of day and your own usage. If you’ve used Night Shift or something similar, you know the deal — the screen slowly shifts toward the more yellow end of the white balance spectrum, reducing blue light so as to not throw your circadian rhythms out of whack. It’s off by default, so you’ll have to go into settings to change it.

The company has also introduced a Dynamic Refresh Rate feature, which cycles between 46 and 120Hz, depending on the app you’re using. This is designed to save some battery life (a 120Hz along with 5G can be a big power hog). The effect is fairly subtle. I can’t say I really noticed over the course of my usage. I certainly appreciate the effort to find new ways to eke out extra juice.

The new era of Samsung is equally notable for what it left off. The new S models mark the end of an era as the company finally abandons expandable storage (following in the footsteps of the Z line). I mean, I get it. These devices range from 128 to 512GB of storage. For a majority of users, the microSD reader was superfluous. I certainly never needed to use it. Per the company, “Over time, SD card usage has markedly decreased on smartphones because we’ve expanded the options of storage available to consumers.”

Of course, expanding the built-in memory is going to cost you. Mostly, though, it’s always a bit of a bummer to say farewell to a long-time distinguishing factory. Speaking of, the company also ditched the in-box headphones and power adapter, notably deleting some ads in which it mocked Apple for recently doing the same. It’s the headphone jack all over again.

The company offered up a similar sustainability explanation in a recent statement. “We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits.” As a consequence, the box is nearly half as thick as those from earlier S lines, for what that’s worth.

As mentioned above, the cameras are remarkably similar to their predecessors, with a few key differences. The S20 Ultra sported an 108-megapixel wide lens (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2) and 48-megapixel (f/3.5) telephoto (4x zoom), while the S21 Ultra features a 108-megapixel wide (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2), 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto (3x zoom) and 10MP telephoto (f/4.9) (10x zoom). The dual telephoto lenses are the biggest differentiator.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The device will switch between telephotos, depending on how much you zoom in. The device performs a lot better than many competing handsets at distances requiring around 10x. Though, while the ability to zoom up to 100x is an extremely impressive thing for a phone to do on paper, the images degrade really quickly at higher levels. At a certain point, the image starts taking on the style of an impressionist painting, which isn’t particularly useful in a majority of cases.

Once Samsung (or whoever) can properly crack the code on translating that noise into signal, it will really be a breakthrough. Still, Zoom Lock is a nice addition in helping to minimize hand shake while zooming. Accidental movements tend to increasing exponentially the tighter you get in on an image. The Super Steady, too, has been improved for video recording.

Portrait mode has been improved. There still tends to be trouble with more complex shapes, but this is a problem I’ve run into with pretty much all solutions. Samsung gets some points here for offering a ton of post-shot portrait editing, from different bokeh levels, to adjusting the focal point to other effects. As with much of the camera software, there’s a lot to play around with.

Other key additions include 8K snap, a nice addition that lets you pull high-res images from a single frame of 8K video. There’s also Vlogger Mode, which shoots from the front and back simultaneously. Someone will no doubt find some social use for this, but it feels a bit gimmicky — one of those features a majority of users will promptly forget about. Additional options are generally a good thing, though the camera software has gotten to the point where there are a ton of menus to navigate.

I get the sense that most users want a way to quickly snap photos and shoot videos. The lower-end S21 entries are great for that. The hardware is strong enough to give you great shots with minimal effort. If you’re someone who really enjoys drilling down on features and getting the best images on-device without exporting to a third-party app, the Ultra is the choice for you. In addition to being a kind of kitchen sink approach, the high-end device is all about choice.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The addition of S Pen functionality is probably the most notable — and curious — thing the Ultra has going for it. On the face of it, this feels like the latest — and most pronounced — in a series of moves effectively blurring the lines between the company’s two flagships. Perhaps Samsung will make a move to further differentiate the next Note, or maybe the company is content to simply let the device meld over time.

There is one major difference off the bat, of course. Namely the fact that there’s no pen slot on the S21. This means that:

  1. The stylus is sold separately.
  2. You need to buy a case with an S Pen holder (also sold separately, naturally) if you’ve got any hope of not losing it.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I happened to have a Note S Pen lying around and found the experience to be pretty smooth. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I’m not really a stylus person myself, but Samsung’s done a good job building up the software over the years. The S Pen is a surprisingly versatile tool, courtesy of several generations of updates. But I would say if the peripheral is important to you, honestly, just buy a Note.

The components are what you’d expect from a high-end Samsung. That includes the brand new Snapdragon 888 (in some markets, at least), and either 12 or 16GB of RAM and 128, 256 or 512GB of storage on the Ultra. The battery remains the same as last year, at 5,000mAh. In spite of 5G and a high refresh rate, I’ve gotten more than a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge.

In the end, the S21 isn’t a huge change over the S20. It’s more of a refinement, really. But it does represent a big change for Samsung. The company has implemented a $200 price drop across the board for these products. The S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra start at $799, $999 and $1,199, respectively. None are what you would call cheap, exactly, but $200 isn’t exactly insignificant, whether it means easing the blow of getting in on the entry level or taking the pain out of going for a higher-end model.

It’s a clear reflection of a few years’ worth of stagnating smartphone sales, exacerbated by some dire numbers amid COVID. It’s nice to see a company take those issues — and concern around spending $1,000+ on a smartphone — to heart beyond simply offering up a flagship “lite.”

 

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Feels is a new dating app with profiles that look more personal – TechCrunch

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Meet Feels, a new French startup that wants to change how dating apps work. According to the company, scrolling through photos and reading descriptions tend to be a boring experience. Feels want to improve profiles so that navigating the app feels more like watching TikTok videos or browsing stories.

“For the past 10 years, there’s been little innovation in the industry,” co-founder and CEO Daniel Cheaib told me. “The reason why many people uninstall dating apps is that it’s boring. Profiles all look the same and we feel like we’re browsing a catalog.”

In that case, Cheaib is thinking about Tinder, but also other dating apps that feel like Tinder but aren’t exactly Tinder, such as Bumble, Happn, etc.

Feels’ founding team has spent two years iterating on the app to find out what works and what doesn’t. Now that retention metrics are where they’re supposed to be, the company is now ready to launch more widely.

Image Credits: Feels

If you want to show interesting content to your users in a dating app, you have to rethink profiles. Arguably, this has been the most difficult part of the development phase. When you install the app, it takes around 15 minutes to create your profile.

At first, only 30% of new users finished the onboarding process. Now, around 75% of new users reach the end of the signup flow.

So what makes a profile on Feels different? In many ways, a profile looks more like a story, or TikTok posts. Users can record videos, add text and stickers, share photos, answer questions and more.

“When you’re done with the onboarding process, you have consistent profiles with people sharing content about them,” Cheaib said.

Like other dating apps, there are many options when it comes to gender identity — you’re not limited to woman or man. You can then say that you want to see all profiles or just some profiles based on various criteria.

After that, you can look at other profiles. Once again, Feels tries to change the basic interaction of dating apps. Most dating apps require you to swipe left or right, or give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. When you think about it, it’s a binary choice that requires a ton of micro decisions.

Sometimes, you don’t have any strong feelings about someone. Or maybe you just want to go to the next profile. And the fact that you have to triage profiles like this leads to a lot negativity, whether it’s conscious or subconscious — you keep rejecting people, after all.

When you’re looking at a profile on Feels, it fills up your entire screen. Videos start playing, you can see what the person likes and who they are in front of a camera. You can react on some content or you can simply move on by swiping up. There’s no heart or like button.

When the startup thought they finally were going somewhere, they raised a $1.3 million funding round (€1.1 million) from a long list of business angels, such as somebody in Atomico’s business angel program, Blaise Matuidi, Eric Besson, René Ricol, Ricardo Pereira , Yohan Benalouane, Nampalys Mendy, Jean Romain Lhomme, Julien Radic and Jean Michel Chami.

Now, Feels plans to attract new users with organic TikTok posts, some TV ads and more. The company wants to reach one million users by the end of the year with a big focus on France for now. There are 100,000 users right now.

When it comes to monetization, Feels started offering a premium subscription to unlock more features. The company is still iterating on that part.

Feels is just getting started in a crowded and competitive industry. Unlike other companies, Feels has invested heavily in its own product before working on user acquisition and paid installs. It’s an ambitious strategy but it has a lot of potential as it could lead to a truly different dating app.

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Social audio startup Stationhead looks beyond music as it hits 100K monthly active users – TechCrunch

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When I’ve written about Stationhead in the past, I’ve focused on how the startup aims to recapture bring personality and interactivity of a live radio broadcast to streaming music. But CEO Ryan Star said his ambitions are broader now: “We’re going to be the largest social audio platform in the world.”

The startup says it’s growing quickly, with 100,000 monthly active users — a number that’s growing by 65% each month — and 500,000 total users. There are 6,300 hosts on the platform, and they created nearly 2 million live and recorded streams in the first three months of the year.

COO Murray Levison told me that the pandemic has brought more artists to the platform as they look for new ways to reach their fans. For example, Cardi B joined the fan show Bardigangradio last month, prompting 132,000 paid streams of her new single on Apple Music and Spotify during the broadcast. (Stationhead integrates with both music streaming services — when a DJ cues up a song, it’s actually playing through your account.)

At the same time, both Star (who co-founded the company due to his own frustrations as an independent musician) and Levison suggested that playing music is not quite as central to their vision as it used to be. Instead, they said Stationhead is all about live audio broadcasting, with or without music.

From a product perspective, Levison said they’re trying to build “the best broadcasting tools for creators and everybody people to use.” At the same time, he added, “Music is still at the core of what we’ve built. Just like games are to Twitch, music is our social glue.”

Image Credits: Shervin Lainez / Stationhead

While the company emphasizes the live experience (which Levison described as “the core value prop”), Stationhead also supports recording shows for listening later, and apparently 50% of users are listening to both live and recorded shows. It has also been beta testing a tipping feature that will allow broadcasters to monetize their shows.

Of course, you can’t talk about social audio without talking about Clubhouse, which was attracting 2 million active users each week in January, according to CEO Paul Davison. Levison suggested that the buzz around Clubhouse has also benefited Stationhead as potential acquirers and investors get more excited about social audio. And Star argued that the companies are taking very different approaches.

“It’s in the name Clubhouse, it’s exclusive,” Star said. “It’s about social climbing and getting closer to the stage. [Stationhead is] living in the world where Cardi B was excited to meet her fans. We are for the 99 percent.”

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TikTok funds first episodic public health series ‘VIRAL’ from NowThis – TechCrunch

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TikTok is taking another step towards directly funding publishers’ content with today’s announcement that it’s financially backing the production of media publisher NowThis’ new series, “VIRAL,” which will feature interviews with public health experts and a live Q&A session focused on answering questions about the pandemic. The partnership represents TikTok’s first-ever funding of an episodic series from a publisher, though TikTok has previously funded creator content.

Through TikTok’s Instructive Accelerator Program, which was formerly known as the Creative Learning Fund, other TikTok publishers have received grants and hands-on support from TikTok so they could produce quality instructive content for TikTok’s #LearnOnTikTok initiative. The program today is structured as four, eight-week cycles during which time publishers post videos four times per week.

NowThis had also participated in the Creative Learning Fund last year and was selected for the latest cycle of the Instructive Accelerator Program. But its “VIRAL” series is separate from these efforts.

NowThis says it brought the concept for the show to TikTok earlier this year outside of the accelerator program, and TikTok greenlit it. TikTok then co-produced the series and provided some funding. Neither NowThis nor TikTok would comment on the extent of the financial backing involved, however.

The “VIRAL” series itself is hosted by infectious disease clinical researcher Laurel Bristow, who spent the last year working on COVID treatments and research. Every Thursday, Bristow will break down COVID facts in easy-to-understand language, NowThis says, including things like vaccine efficacy, transmission timelines, and treatment. The show will also bust COVID myths, provide information about ongoing public health risks, and feature interviews with a cross-section of experts.

Each episode of the will be 45 minutes in length and will also include an interactive segment where the TikTok viewing audience will be able to engage in a real-time Q&A session about the show’s content. In total, five episodes are being produced, and will air starting on Thursday April 15 at 6 PM ET and will run through Thursday May 13 on the @NowThis main TikTok page.

@nowthisTune in to our new TikTok live show VIRAL on Thursdays at 6pm ET with host @kinggutterbaby

♬ original sound – nowthis

NowThis has become one of the most-followed news media accounts on TikTok, with 4.6 million followers across its news and politics channels, since launching a little over a year ago. Because of its focus on video, it’s been a good fit for the TikTok’s platform.

The approach TikTok is taking with “VIRAL’s” production, it’s worth noting, stands in contrast to how other social media platforms are handling the pandemic and COVID-19 information. While most, including TikTok, have pledged to fact check COVID-19 information, remove misinformation and conspiracies, point users to official sources for health information, and provide other resources, TikTok is directly funding public health content featuring scientists and researchers, and then promoting it on its network.

The company explained to TechCrunch its thinking on the matter.

“As the pandemic continues to evolve, we think it’s important to provide our community an outlet to dispel misinformation and communicate with public health experts in real-time,” said Robbie Levin, Manager of Media Partnerships at TikTok. “NowThis has consistently been a great partner that produces engaging and informative content, so we felt this series would be an impactful and important avenue for our users to receive credible information on our platform,” Levin noted.

While the pandemic has driven the topic of choice here, paying creators for content is not new. And TikTok isn’t the only one to do so. Instagram and Snapchat are both funding creator content for their TikTok clones, Reels and Spotlight, respectively. And new social platforms like Clubhouse are funding creators’ shows, as well.

TikTok says it’s not currently talking to other publishers to produce more series like “VIRAL,” but it isn’t ruling out the idea of expanding its creator funding and producing efforts. In addition to its accelerator program, which is continuing, TikTok says if “VIRAL” proves successful and the community responds positively, it will pursue similar opportunities in the future.

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